There has long been a history of missing mothers in the entertainment arena, and as such it has been suggested that the ‘dead-mother plot is a fixture of fiction, so deeply woven into our storytelling fabric that it seems impossible to unravel or explain’ (Warner 1995). The first Cinderella stories, that of Yeh-hsien, come from ninth-century China, and since that time, the trope has only grown in number through fairy tales and children’s literature, the Disney franchise, Hollywood animations, family films, the situation comedy genre and more recently teen drama and urban fantasy. There are several possible reasons for the emergence and continued popularity of this trope, be it due to notions of subjectivity and character development, or the sense that such programming is acting as a social barometer in relation to the rise in single parent families, a response to the growing number of mothers leaving the television industry, a misogynistic twist or a hegemonic challenge to existing gender norms and social mores. In one sense the reasons behind the ‘missing mother’ trope of adolescent programming are crucially important, but in another sense they are immaterial; after all, while the teen and adolescent audience may not be aware of the minutia of the wider social or economic context, they are increasingly familiar with the detail of a genre which informs them that mothers do not matter:
The mother is thrown away, killed—often violently—for the sake of the heroine’s story. These absences (often deaths and often graphic, violent deaths) are thrown in almost casually. These mothers are disposable, convenient story points, not characters in their own right. In fact, ‘disposable characters’ may be giving them too much credit, since they don’t even have chance to become characters before they’re cast aside to haunt their children ... this also serves to emphasise how little we regard mothers as characters or people in their own right. A mother is seen as an extension of her child rather than a person—and since a mother is all about her child, why shouldn’t she be sacrificed to further her child’s back story? She isn’t important as a person, and if she contributes best by being dead or absent, so be it, she doesn’t matter (Paul 2012).
Whether it be due to public service commitments, a social action programme or a commercial drive for new audiences, audiences, specifically young female audiences need to know that mothers matter. Maternal depictions and mother-child relations are not required to be positive or sugar-coated, indeed, a sense of character complexity and maternal development could prove to be both engaging and challenging for genre audiences, but what they do need to be is visible.